Stanford soccer captain Naomi Girma is a product of her Ethiopian roots

IN A NATIONAL championship soccer final loaded with drama and tension, Stanford’s Naomi Girma didn’t have time to think as the scoreless match extended into its 107th minute.

North Carolina All-American Alessia Russo was bearing down on a counterattack with Girma the only defender to beat. Russo used a feint and a stepover move to try to get Girma off-balance, and struck a hard shot with her right foot.

Girma, never fooled, stretched her left leg and blocked the shot, dousing the threat and preserving a shutout to send the match to penalty kicks.

By the end of the night, Girma scored on Stanford’s third kick, goalkeeper Katie Meyer made two saves, and Kiki Pickett fired in the winner, triggering a wild celebration on the field and in the stands at Avaya Stadium in Girma’s hometown of San Jose.

She looked to the stands behind the team bench and saw familiar faces, family and friends, many from the South Bay’s Ethiopian community - the people "who helped me get where I am today," she said.

Girma smiled. She yelled. She raised her arms in triumph. She shared her joy.

"That was, by far, the best moment of my life," she said.

The saying, "It takes a village..." is especially true for Girma. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Naomi was raised among those who looked out for each other. Naomi’s father, Girma Aweke (in Ethiopia, children take the first name of their father as their last name), was instrumental in bringing Ethiopians together and creating bonds among those from so far away.

Their children shared activities, outings, and pizza parties. And Naomi, in particular, always shared her parents’ compassion for others. It is deeply ingrained and her outgoing nature and ability to connect helped earn her the role of Stanford’s captain as a sophomore last year.

"I have a lot of respect and a lot of trust in her," said Paul Ratcliffe, Stanford’s Knowles Family Director of Women’s Soccer.

Six months after the final and well into the pandemic, Girma was the featured speaker via Zoom at the virtual high school graduation for a program for underserved and immigrant youth called Soccer Without Borders.

Wearing her United States youth national team jersey, Girma congratulated, encouraged, and inspired.

"Never undermine your experiences," she told them. "They make you extraordinary and special... You’re doing things that myself and others could not imagine going through. They have made you stronger and prepared you to take on the world, even though you may not feel that way right now.

"I can’t wait to see all the amazing things that you all will do."

That was, by far, the best moment of my life.
Naomi Girma

WHEN GEORGE FLOYD was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, the blow was felt strongly among players on the Stanford soccer team. In a sport that is overwhelmingly white at the women’s collegiate level, the Cardinal is proudly diverse.

"When a younger girl looks up and sees our team, she can probably see herself somewhere," Girma said. "It’s one of our strengths."

Since Floyd’s death, the team is active in its push against injustice and systemic racism.

"We are hurt... We are outraged... We are tired of inaction," read a message crafted by the entire team and staff and posted on team social media accounts. "Our team refuses to stay silent and complicit in times of injustice, and we encourage our Stanford Women’s Soccer community and fans to take action where they can, to educate themselves where they must, and to continue to fight for change now.

"Say their names. Stay safe. Demand change.

"Black Lives Matter."

The Cardinal vows to keep the message alive through the upcoming season, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 3, perhaps with messages on warmup gear, through gestures in goal celebrations, or in additional calls to action.

"There are different ways to show our support and continue the conversation," Girma said. "This isn’t something that just happened and stopped there. We want it to be something that continues to be embedded within our program.

"We’re going to talk about what we believe in, whether it be Black Lives Matter or mental health or other things. There are a bunch of strong women on our team who are passionate and driven, and not only in soccer."

Even with her stature in soccer, Girma struggled with confidence. However, at Stanford, "I’ve gotten to explore different sides of who I am," she said.

"I’m learning there are different aspects of life than just soccer. At the same time, being a highly competitive athlete is something that’s grounded me and taught me more about myself. When I’m going into a national team camp or a higher level where I might not be the best player, but I can still be confident in my abilities and trust myself."

Girma is gaining influence - as illustrated by her invitation to speak from Soccer Without Borders - as she gains prominence in the sport. She caught the eye of coach Vlatko Andonovski, who invited Girma, as well as Stanford teammate Catarina Macario, to the U.S. national team’s October camp in Colorado.

Girma plays one of the most important positions in Ratcliffe’s system, in central defense. She is the latest in a 15-year line of future pros at that position: Allison Falk, Alina Garciamendez, Maddie Bauer, Tierna Davidson, and Alana Cook. Garciamendez played in two World Cups for Mexico and Davidson and Cook play for the U.S.

In Stanford’s possession style, center backs initiate the offense and are required to be skillful and offensive-minded, pushing forward when given room. Girma, with the skills and offensive mentality of a midfielder, loves that role and excels in it, earning first-team All-America and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.

IF THE TV is on at the Girma household, it’s probably soccer. That’s the only thing Aweke said he watches, favoring the English Premier League and recordings of great players such as Pele.

He strives to expose kids to the game, which is why he created the Maleda Soccer Club - ’maleda’ meaning ’dawn’ in the family’s native language of Amharic. The league is meant to be a gathering of Ethiopian families in an effort to strengthen the bonds of the community through soccer.

Naomi first played organized soccer through Maleda and still has her first jersey, an oversized orange shirt that probably still fits today, though she was only five when she first put it on. Soon, she advanced to a more competitive club, the Central Valley Crossfire, and began to star as a midfielder.

"I first saw her locally in San Jose quite a while ago," Ratcliffe said. "I thought she was a phenomenal player, in her athleticism and how easy she makes everything look. That’s what really stood out for me."

Naomi committed to Stanford while a sophomore at Pioneer High School. Though Naomi was exposed to the game early, it was her own passion that made the game come alive for her, just as it did for her father.

As a boy in Nazareth, renamed Adama, a transportation hub in central Ethiopia, Aweke couldn’t wait for the ringing of a large bell at his school, signaling the end of the school day. At the first sound, he bolted through the classroom door for home, specifically to the side of his grandmother. He fidgeted there until she sent him to the market. Only upon his return was he allowed to play soccer.

"I could not wait," he said.

The sport is intensely popular in Ethiopia, with supporters often caravanning hundreds of miles to follow teams that represent provinces largely drawn along ethnic lines.

The country’s international success has not matched the fervor of its fans. Top players rarely venture to better clubs outside of East Africa and the building of the national team has been stymied by famine, civil war, and corruption. The Walias, a nickname derived from the walia ibex, won the African Cup of Nations in 1962, but have qualified only once for the continental championship tournament since 1982 and never have reached the World Cup.

During the relatively peaceful reign of emperor Haile Selassie, Aweke met his friends on a dust field in the city. They wore no shoes and used a ball they made themselves. Sometimes they raised money to buy a plastic ball, but it rarely lasted more than a day. Aweke was known for his dribbling, sometimes going end to end and evading slicing tackles along the way. Afterward, the friends remained at the empty pitch, joking and laughing as the sun went down.

"I was one of the youth leaders to organize and stand up against the dictatorship. A generation was being wiped out. We had to stand up against it. We had no choice.
Girma Aweke, Naomi’s father

Selassie was overthrown in a 1974 military coup by a Soviet-backed junta and murdered a year later by the same regime, called The Derg. Ethiopia fell into a communist, one-party state.

In 1977, Mengistu Haile Mariam gained power and launched the Red Terror political repression campaign to eliminate political opponents, with tens of thousands imprisoned and executed without trial.

The country spiraled into a civil war that left at least 1.4 million dead, 1 million related to famine.

Aweke was 17 at the time of the coup, and by 19 was a leader in an opposition group of young people so clandestine that members knew no more than five others in the organization.

"I was one of the youth leaders to organize and stand up against the dictatorship," Aweke said. "A generation was being wiped out. We had to stand up against it. We had no choice."

One by one, friends were killed, including his closest childhood companion. Aweke knew he would die if he remained, and schemed to escape. With a group of five, they embarked on foot for Sudan, seeking to avoid sizable towns and pro-government strongholds. They were to stick to the mountains whenever possible.

The terrain was rugged and the country was big. Ethiopia is 426,400 square miles, 1.6 times the size of Texas. Blocking the path to Sudan to the northwest was the massive Ethiopian Highlands, the ’Roof of Africa,’ featuring 14,930-foot Ras Dashen, the continent’s 10th-highest mountain.

With little money and barely more than the clothes on their backs, they depended on the generosity of others, mostly farmers, for food and water. Sometimes there was none, and every step seemed to present a new problem.

Having hired a guide to take them through a stretch of lowlands, they found themselves led one night toward a city on the horizon. They could see light in the sky. Realizing this, the group rebelled. The guide said he made a mistake. Was it treachery? They backtracked five hours before heading in a new direction.

Along the way, Aweke grew weak and no longer could walk. The friends left him at a farmhouse, where a stranger looked after him. Stricken with malaria, Aweke faded in and out of consciousness. The woman placed a towel on his head to comfort him, and sustained him with food and coffee, an area specialty.

"It was unbelievable what she did," said Aweke, who remained there for 10 days. "After three or four days, I could see myself being transformed."

He left home because of hate, but on this journey, he saw love. His life depended on the care of others. Aweke discovered his calling, to pay forward the kindness that so many paid to him.

Finally, after four years on the run, the five pooled the little money that remained to hire a guide to ferry them across the swollen Tekeze River and into Sudan.

Safely across the border, Aweke turned back toward Ethiopia. Instead of joy, he felt sorrow for those who continued to suffer and die at the hands of an evil regime.

"We lost so many," he said. "You’re free, but at the same time, you’re not, because... the sorrow doesn’t go away."

Not sure what to do, Sudanese authorities put the group in jail. Aweke and his friends laughed at their situation. They knew they wouldn’t be killed. That was the difference between jail in Ethiopia and Sudan.

RELEASED THE NEXT day, they found their way first to a small hut, where they were among 15 people to share the rent, with many sleeping outside. Now able to communicate with loved ones, Aweke discovered his grandmother had died. His parents and grandfather, however, were overjoyed. They assumed he was dead.

Daily trips to a United Nations office paid off when the American embassy included 5,000 refugees in a resettlement program that brought Aweke to San Francisco in 1982. He subsisted by creating a soccer team of Ethiopian immigrants, and took jobs as a dishwasher and busboy. He paid his way through City College of San Francisco and San Jose State, where he graduated with an electrical engineering degree and, through the Bay Area’s Ethiopian community, met Seble Demissie, who worked in finance and banking. Together, they married and built a family.

The oldest, Nathaniel, is a Santa Clara University bioengineering graduate and Naomi, now a junior, is majoring in symbolic systems, an interdisciplinary field that mixes elements of computer science, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics.

Aweke never forgot his revelation in the Ethiopian countryside, about paying it forward.

"When I see any suffering, it bothers me," Aweke said. "That’s what happens sometimes when you open your heart. You see how people are living and what’s going on. That’s the hardest part, knowing about something and you can’t do anything about it. I see that a lot. Everywhere."

In 2008, he founded Ethio-Village, a nonprofit that provides career support and youth mentorship, among other services, to the Ethiopian community. The organization built a school in southern Ethiopia and hopes to build two more, when current turmoil in the country subsides.

Naomi hasn’t forgotten her roots or her family’s.

"None of my success in soccer would’ve been possible without the community around me," she said.

"I had family here and I had friends who were like family." That’s why that moment, of making a brilliant play at a crucial time in a national championship match in front of her family and her community, was so special.

"I wasn’t nervous," she said. "I just felt comfortable. I remember having this unwavering confidence that we were going to win."

As she looked into the Avaya Stadium stands that night, she was absolutely right.


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